SINGAPORE: A coordinated approach to fighting the COVID-19 pandemic in Southeast Asia is necessary, but it would be unprecedented and require transparency from countries involved, experts have said.
On Tuesday (Apr 14), ASEAN leaders and the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea held a virtual summit on COVID-19 where they pledged to boost cooperation to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus and mitigate the pandemic’s devastating economic fallout.
"If this can be achieved, it will be unprecedented, but equally what we are facing with COVID-19 is unprecedented,” said Professor Teo Yik Ying, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, National University of Singapore (NUS).
At the ASEAN summit, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong proposed three ways to coordinate the region’s response: To share each country’s information, strategies and experiences; to collaborate to keep trading routes and supply lines open, and to have some agreement on how to impose trade and travel restrictions as well as on relaxing them when the time comes.
In a declaration after the summit, ASEAN leaders emphasised a “whole-of-ASEAN community approach” to the virus outbreak and called on member states to help each other.
This includes keeping trade routes open to protect food supplies and medical equipment, the development of a post-pandemic recovery plan and a proposed COVID-19 ASEAN Response Fund.
Ms Hoang Thi Ha, lead researcher for political and security affairs at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, said that such calls for ASEAN unity and action in COVID-19 response have grown louder in the past week.
The Special ASEAN Summit injected “much-needed political impetus” for more coordination among the member states in handling the disruptions from COVID-19, she said.
“The momentum is there but the impact on the ground remains to be seen, subject to the follow-through of the summit’s discussions at both national and regional levels.”
Infectious diseases expert Annelies Wilder-Smith said ASEAN countries could be the first to coordinate in such ways.
“I believe that ASEAN will be the first to coordinate and then Europe and other parts of the world could learn from ASEAN,” said the visiting professor at Nanyang Technological University’s Lee Kong Chian School of Medicine.
“There is now also a movement within Europe to step up a coordinated response within the continent. Many European countries are at different phases of the outbreak … but Europe is moving in the right direction.”
BILLIONS IN LOCKDOWN
The global coronavirus epidemic started in China’s Wuhan late last year but has since spread to nearly every country in the world. The number of people who have died from the virus has exceeded 125,000 as the cumulative number of cases nears 2 million and continues to climb.
In the first phase of the outbreak, China had the majority of the cases but the disease epicentre moved to Europe, and now the United States, which heads the virus league table with more than 600,000 infections.
The 10 countries in ASEAN have reported more than 22,000 cases, with the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia each having more than 5,000 cases. Singapore had initial success containing the virus, but now has more than 3,000 cases in a second wave of infections.
Thailand has reported about 2,600 cases while Vietnam has 265, with official numbers in Laos and Myanmar even lower. There are fears that the spread may be undetected in areas where healthcare facilities are poor.
Billions of people are in some form of lockdown around the world although some territories are starting to ease restrictions as the number of cases fall.
Spain, Italy and India are taking or planning steps to relax restrictions while the European Union is poised to suggest a coordinated "road map" for member states to exit lockdown measures.
Such lifting of restrictions would help buoy mothballed economies but have to be balanced with measures to avoid another wave of infections.
Prof Teo said that as the pandemic comes under control, there should be coordinated easing of travel restrictions. Countries that are in a similar, contained phase of the outbreak may form a bloc allowing for a greater degree of unrestricted travel to resume.
“This will require very transparent sharing of data on the current disease situation in each country, and I see this as one of the hardest to achieve – especially if the incentive to deceive is fundamentally economic,” he said.
This is easier said than done, said political scientist Chong Ja Ian, who had a sceptical view of ASEAN nations’ ability to collaborate.
“A big challenge with international groupings and governments, as we have seen with COVID-19, is that they have multiple competing incentives,” said Associate Professor Chong of NUS.
“Political leaders may not wish to be as forthcoming about information as they should because of partisan, personal, economic or other considerations.”
He cited “long-standing challenges” that ASEAN faces even before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has limited its response to issues from transboundary haze to cross-border crime and territorial disputes.
“Not addressing these fundamental challenges may consign any ASEAN initiative on COVID-19 to an on-paper solution,” he said.
POOL RESOURCES, SYNC LIFTING OF LOCKDOWNS
Elaborating on the need to coordinate essential supplies and personal protective equipment, Prof Teo said that there may be a need to consider pooling a fraction of the national resources from every ASEAN country. These resources can then be redistributed to enable countries to mount effective responses to the pandemic.
Ms Jessica Wau, Assistant Director (ASEAN) at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs said that countries can arrange to source for raw material together for the joint production of essential goods.
“This is a win-win approach that will make goods such as masks and test kits more readily available for equitable sharing,” she said.
While the scale of collaboration would be unprecedented, this is not the first time ASEAN has had to move as one, said Dr Lim Wee Kiat, associate director of the Centre for Management Practice at Singapore Management University.
There have been past successes such as the establishment of the ASEAN Agreement on Disaster Management and Emergency Response and the ASEAN Coordinating Centre for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management (AHA Centre) in the wake of the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami.
Such structures can be activated or expanded, for example, essential medical supplies and equipment can be parked under the AHA Centre, said Dr Lim, an organisation and disaster sociologist.
Mr Hoang raised a similar point, adding that the ASEAN Plus Three Emergency Rice Reserve should be activated.
“Due to the urgency of the problem, flexibility and diplomacy must be exercised to overcome the many bureaucratic layers embedded in these mechanisms for quick action on the ground,” she said.
Whatever the difficulties, countries may come to realise that they will need to handle the COVID-19 situation for the next few years and that it would be “disadvantageous” to mount a unilateral response, said Prof Teo, adding that he has seen some global coordination emerging as well as some economic collaborations coming online.
“The above measures, in my opinion, are the only way that collectively, the world can have a chance to contain COVID-19 before a viable and safe vaccine becomes widely available; the only way for national economies to regain some level of normalcy,” he said.